When Dick Pilsner started D&S Dental Laboratory in 1972, his first "employee" was his grandmother who showed up on the first day to help answer phones and stayed for months, eventually taking over pickup and delivery. Worried she was working too hard, Dick spoke to her doctor—also his doctor—who said, "She's healthier than you...now stop eating hamburgers at the bench."
But Pilsner—and his wife, Sally—never stopped being concerned about their employees and that has been the culture at D&S for the last 40 years. Now with three locations and 77 employees, the Waunakee, WI laboratory remains true to its mission: focusing on the internal customer. "We want to have a community at work, rather than just a workplace," says Pilsner. "We started off as a 'ma-and-pa' business and, although we can't operate like that anymore, we can't lose sight of the original philosophy: that it's all about each other."
For example, in 1998, aware of the pressures faced by working parents, D&S took on the huge project of opening its own daycare for employees' children. That business, which also was open to non-employees, quickly earned a reputation in the area and eventually grew to 180 kids. The daycare has since been sold off; however, D&S employees' children get priority for placement and the laboratory still pays 40% of childcare expenses. Similarly, a fitness center originally opened for employees was also sold but offers deeply discounted memberships to D&S staff.
The lab was also ahead of the curve when, in 1999, the Pilsners decided to offer employees the opportunity to purchase stock in the laboratory. Today, in addition to the Pilsners, who are majority shareholders, there are seven other shareholders, including the Pilsners' son, Craig. "All of the shareholders are active managers in different areas of the lab, and we all work together to run the business as a whole," says Travis Zick, a shareholder in the laboratory who oversees business development and administration. "And that helps preserve the culture because we're all part of the same team."
In keeping with the laboratory's open-book approach, managers talk to staff about material costs and other expenses at monthly meetings, and periodically the entire staff sits down together to take a closer look at profitability. This has turned out to be a powerful motivator, and employees themselves have taken on projects like developing leaner workflows in order to cut expenses.
Technicians are also actively encouraged to pursue certification and continuing education and the staff periodically gathers for dinner and technical presentations from some of the lab's lead technicians. But sometimes it's just about having fun: think Turkey Bingo, an annual pre-Thanksgiving tradition where the staff gathers for bingo and chances to win turkeys; St. Nicholas Day when stockings are hung on benches in anticipation of treats; and summer picnics, cook-offs and baseball outings, most of which also include families.
All of this not only makes D&S a terrific place to work, but also one that dentists want to do business with. "When you have quality employees who enjoy what they do, that comes through to the client. We couldn't offer the level of service we do without our staff on board," says Zick. Focused on being the best resource for their customers, D&S emphasizes client education, Lunch and Learns, chairside assistance and more. Once a year, the lab hosts dentists and their staffs for Staff Appreciation Night, which includes table clinics and prizes, and also holds an annual continuing education course paired with a golf outing.
While the focus on people hasn't changed in D&S's 40 years, Pilsner points out that a lot of other things have. Housed in a 16,000-sq-ft facility since 2003, D&S headquarters also has a full milling center and 99% of its fixed restorations are completely digital without traditional waxups. "Digital has changed everything," says Pilsner. "What an amazing future we have to look forward to—not only here at the lab, but the entire industry. After all this time, I still love this business."